Vladimir Radyuhin

The U.S.-led NATO forces have not only failed to eliminate the terrorist threat from the Taliban but have also presided over a spectacular rise in opium production in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s narcotics have struck Russia like a tsunami threatening to decimate its already shrinking population. In a country of 142 million people, there are about 6 million drug-users — a 20-fold increase since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Overwhelmed by a flood of drugs from Afghanistan, Russia says it has fallen victim to “narco-aggression.”

The illegal drug turnover in Russia is estimated to be between $10 billion and $15 billion, discounting transit trafficking. The Federal Drug Control Service said earlier this month that as many as 30 million to 40 million people in Russia may have tried drugs at least once. Annually, some 80,000 Russians die of drug-related causes. One in five crimes committed in Russia is related to drugs.

Narcotics have become an integral part of the youth subculture. In Moscow alone, narcotics are sold at about 100 discothèques and cafes frequented by the young, the city drug control service reported last month. About 45 per cent of Russian university students use drugs, according to Russian Minister for Education and Science Andrei Fursenko. He described the situation as “critical.” The Moscow city government plans to introduce mandatory drug tests for all students in the Russian capital this year. Schoolchildren may be next in line for screening: some surveys indicate that four out of five young Russians are familiar with drugs. The Russian Parliament is planning to discuss a law to allow compulsory treatment of drug and alcohol addicts.

President Vladimir Putin has described the drug abuse problem in Russia as a “national calamity.” The catastrophic rise in drug addiction in Russia has been spurred by the painful transition from socialism to capitalism that Russia has been going through since 1991. But external factors have played a crucial role. Last year, Mr. Putin bluntly stated that Russia and Europe faced “narco-aggression.”

The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991 threw open the floodgates of drug trafficking from Afghanistan across Central Asia to Russia and further west to Europe. Overnight, Russia lost control over nearly 5,000 km of former Soviet borders in Central Asia and the Caucasus. At the same time, nearly 8,000 km of what used to be internal nominal boundaries between ex-Soviet republics became Russia’s new state borders.

In 1993, Russian border guards returned to Tajikistan in an effort to contain the flow of drugs from opium-producing Afghanistan. In 2002 alone, they intercepted 6.7 tonnes of drugs, half of them heroin. However in 2005, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon, hoping to win financial aid from the U.S., asked the Russian border guards to leave, saying Tajikistan had recovered enough from a 1992-97 Civil War to shoulder the task. Within months of the Russian withdrawal, cross-border drug trafficking increased manifold.

Turkmenistan, another major opium route from Afghanistan, threw out Russian border guards in 1999. Since 2000, it has reported no drug seizures to international organisations. President Saparmurat Niyazov who died last year claimed his country had no drug problem. However, independent surveys indicate that up to half of Turkmenistan’s male population uses drugs. In 2002, the country’s Prosecutor-General Kurbanbibi Atadzhanova was arrested for operating a drug trafficking ring.

Seventeen years after the break-up of the Soviet Union, borders between the newly independent states are still porous and travel is visa-free. Air passengers arriving from Central Asia are routinely screened for drugs in Russian airports but if drugs are shipped by land, there is only a remote chance of their getting intercepted.

According to the Federal Drug Control Service, 90 per cent of the heroin sold in Russia comes from Afghanistan. In 2000, the Taliban banned poppy plantations and the next year opium production dipped to an all-time low level of 185 tonnes. However, since the U.S.-led invasion, the poppy fields have mushroomed again. According to the United Nations authority on drugs and crime, last year Afghanistan produced 8,200 tonnes of opium, enough to make a stunning 93 per cent of the world’s heroin.

When Russia backed the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to crush the Taliban and the Al-Qaeda in the post-9/11 scenario, it least expected drug trafficking from Afghanistan to assume gargantuan proportions under the U.S. military. The U.S.-led NATO forces have not only failed to eliminate the terrorist threat from the Taliban but have also presided over a spectacular rise in opium production. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Afghanistan was tottering on the brink of becoming a “narco state.”

Narco business has emerged as virtually the only economy of Afghanistan valued at some $10 billion a year. Opium trade is estimated by the U.N. to be equivalent to 53 per cent of the country’s official economy, and it is helping to finance the Taliban.

“Unfortunately, they (NATO) are doing nothing to reduce the narcotic threat from Afghanistan even a tiny bit,” Mr. Putin angrily remarked three years ago. He accused the coalition forces of “sitting back and watching caravans haul drugs across Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union and Europe.”

‘Waste of money’

As time went by, Russian suspicions regarding the $1-billion-a-year U.S. counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan grew deeper. U.S. former ambassador to the U.N., Richard Holbrooke, described it as “the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy.”

“It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taliban and al-Qaida, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan,” Mr. Holbrooke wrote in the Washington Post earlier this month. In December, Russian Ambassador to Afghanistan Zamir Kabulov told the Vesti 24-hour news channel that according to unconfirmed reports the U.S. military transport aviation is used for the delivery of drugs from Afghanistan to the American airbases, Ganci in Kyrgyzstan and Incirlik in Turkey. “If such actions do take place, they cannot be undertaken without contact with Afghans, and if one Afghan man knows this, at least half of Afghanistan will know about this sooner or later,” Ambassador Kabulov said. “That is why I think this is possible but cannot prove it.”

The Pentagon set up the Ganci Air Force base at the Manas international airport in Kyrgyzstan in late 2001 as a staging post for military operations in Afghanistan. The Kyrgyz government threatened to close the base after neighbouring Uzbekistan shut down a similar U.S. airbase on its territory but relented after Washington agreed to a one-off payment of $150 million in the form of an assistance package, and to pay $15 million a year for the use of the base.

It has been reported earlier that the CIA is involved in Afghanistan’s opium production, or is at least protecting it. But it is for the first time that Russia has directly accused the U.S. military of involvement in heroin traffic from Afghanistan to Europe.

One of the best-informed Russian journalists on Central Asia, Arkady Dubnov, quoted anonymous Afghan sources as saying that “85 per cent of all drugs produced in southern and southeastern provinces are shipped abroad by U.S. aviation.” Well-informed sources in Afghanistan’s security services told the Russian journalist that the American military acquired drugs through local Afghan officials who dealt with field commanders in-charge of drug production.

Writing in the Vremya Novostei daily last month, Mr. Dubnov claimed that the pro-Western administration of President Hamid Karzai, including his two brothers, Kajum Karzai and Akhmed Vali Karzai, are head-to-heels involved in the narcotics trade. The article quoted a leading U.S. expert on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin, as telling an anti-narcotics conference in Kabul last October that “drug dealers had infiltrated Afghani state structures to the extent where they could easily paralyse the work of the government if [a] decision to arrest one of them was ever made.”

Open question

It is an open question whether Russian charges of U.S. complicity in drug trafficking are based on hard evidence or have been prompted by Moscow’s frustration at Washington’s failure to address the opium problem in Afghanistan. But it is a fact that the U.S. and NATO have stonewalled numerous offers of cooperation from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), a defence pact of six former Soviet republics.

CSTO Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha quoted a Pentagon general as telling him: “We are not fighting narcotics because this is not our task in Afghanistan.” Instead of joining hands with the SCO and the CSTO in combating the narcotics threat, the CSTO chief said, the U.S. was working to set up rival security structures in the region. Washington was working to “drive a geopolitical wedge between Central Asian countries and Russia and to reorient the region towards the U.S.,” Mr. Bordyuzha said last year.

With the U.S. and NATO rebuffing their cooperation offers, Russia, China and the Central Asian states have to rely on their own forces in combating the narcotics threat from Afghanistan. Last year, the SCO and the CSTO signed a cooperation protocol aimed, above all, at curbing drug trafficking. At its summit in Bishkek last August, the SCO also decided to set up jointly with the CSTO an “anti-narcotics belt” around Afghanistan.